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Judge Won't Release Grand Jury Testimony From Eric Garner Chokehold Case

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) -- Testimony heard by a grand jury that declined to indict a police officer in the apparent chokehold death of Eric Garner will not be released, a judge ruled Thursday,

State Supreme Court Justice William Garnett ruled that there was not a good enough reason to make the secret information public.

As CBS2's Tony Aiello reported, Garner died on July 17 of last year in a controversial confrontation with police on Staten Island. In December, a grand jury cleared the NYPD officer involved -- Daniel Pantaleo -- of any wrongdoing, and protests erupted on city streets.

The New York Civil Liberties Union and others had asked the court to order Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan to release the grand jury transcript, including the testimony from Pantaleo, and dozens of witnesses, along with detailed descriptions of evidence and other documentation. A similar step was voluntarily taken by the prosecutor in Ferguson, Missouri, when a grand jury there refused to indict an officer in the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Both Garner and Brown were black; the officers involved are white. The deaths sparked nationwide protests about the treatment of communities of color by law enforcement and a debate about the role of race in policing.

Judge Won't Release Grand Jury Testimony From Eric Garner Chokehold Case

Civil liberties lawyers had argued that the public needed to reconcile the widely watched video of the Garner arrest with the decision not to indict the officer involved.

But Garnett wrote that the law required the NYCLU and the other parties who brought the lawsuit to establish a "compelling and particularized need for access" to release the grand jury minutes.

In earlier cases, official secrecy was lifted in order to stop bid-rigging, uncover no-show jobs, or investigate corruption, Garnett wrote. But none of those applied in this case.

"What would they use the minutes for? The only answer which the court heard was the possibility of effecting legislative change," he wrote. "That proffered need is purely speculative and does not satisfy the requirements of the law."

Eric Garner
Eric Garner (credit: CBS2)

Donovan argued that the disclosure would damage the credibility of prosecutors seeking to assure both grand jurors and witnesses that details of their participation would be kept from public view. Following the grand jury's decision, Donovan asked for some information to be made public, but it didn't include testimony or exhibits shown to jurors.

Judge Won't Release Grand Jury Testimony From Eric Garner Chokehold Case

Donovan also argued that the secrecy of a grand jury proceeding is protected by the New York Constitution and it would take an amendment to change that.

The judge also agreed with arguments by Donovan's office that secrecy was needed to assure witnesses that they would not be subjected to public criticism for their cooperation.

"This concern is particularly cogent in 'high publicity cases' where the witnesses' truthful and accurate testimony is vital,'' Garnett wrote. "It is in such notorious cases that witnesses' cooperation and honesty should be encouraged -- not discouraged -- for fear of disclosure.''

The proponents also claimed Donovan was duplicitous for going to court to ask for a partial disclosure of details such as the number of witnesses, only to turn around and argue against the release of more meaningful information such as testimony and prosecutors' instructions to the grand jury.

Pantaleo and other officers stopped Garner on July 17 on suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. A video shot by an onlooker and widely watched online shows Garner telling the officers to leave him alone and refusing to be handcuffed.

Pantaleo responded by wrapping his arm around Garner's neck in what he said was a sanctioned takedown move and not a banned chokehold. The heavyset Garner, who had asthma, is heard on the tape gasping, "I can't breathe." He later was pronounced dead at a hospital.

The New York City medical examiner's office ruled Garner's death a homicide, caused by the officer's apparent chokehold as well as chest and neck compressions and prone positioning "during physical restraint by police."

Jonathan Moore, who represents Garner's family, said they were "disturbed" by the ruling.

"We think this grand jury process was deeply flawed,'' he said. "We think the ability for the public to see what that process was like would have been an important step in understanding what happened here."

City Public Advocate Letitia James, who had campaigned for the release of the transcripts, also was not happy with the ruling.

"I can think of no better 'particularized and or compelling need' than faith in a criminal justice system that is clearly broken," she said.

James said she will appeal the decision.

(TM and © Copyright 2015 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)


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